It’s safe to say that the rehearsal process for Rosie Kay’s 5 Soldiers: The Body Is The Frontline was not dictated by your standard schedule of regular practice and refinement.
When the Birmingham based choreographer Kay joined The 4th Battalion, The Rifles, to watch and participate in full battle exercises, what she witnessed was enough to inspire a piece which questions what it is that we ask of our soldiers, exploring how the human body remains essential to war, despite modern advances in battle technology.
Sadler’s Wells’ presentation of the resulting show is set to be live streamed globally from a working Army drill hall in central London next month, following a critically acclaimed run at the Army’s first ever Edinburgh Festival Fringe venue.
The production is borne from a fascinating authenticity, realised through the vigorous military training its performers undertook. Dancer Luke Bradshaw was one such participant, taking on a battle exercise with Royal Scots Dragoons – Light Calvary Regiment. Here, he gives us an insight into a rehearsal process quite unlike any other…
Rosie Kay Dance Company’s 5 Soldiers: The Body Is The Frontline will be performed live at the Yeomanry House, Bloomsbury, from 7-9 September. You can book tickets through the Sadler’s Wells website.
We’re moving out from the forward operating base. The FOB is a small clearing sandwiched between a small track and the edge of the forest. The soldiers are chatty and friendly; they have broken our stereotypes as much as we have broken theirs.
This week we have joined The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards on battle exercise in Galloway Forest. Today, we will each embed within a troop of soldiers during battle exercise.
Strapped into the back of a Jackal – a light armoured military vehicle, originating from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – every nook and cranny is stashed with rations, equipment or ammo. Standing in front of me is a soldier manning a 50 cal weapon system. There is barely room to move.
When we stop, everyone gets their heads down whilst they can. We’re sleeping under a sheet of tarpaulin stretched between two Jackals. Everyone squeezes under the tarp to escape the drizzle. We’ve taken our boots and jackets off, but otherwise we’re still fully clothed inside our sleeping bags. Any gloves and socks that are already wet come inside with you – your body heat dries them out.
Dancers become close when on tour together. Living with soldiers for even a few days puts this into perspective. Morning ablutions consist of almost rubbing shoulders with your boss as he washes his entire body with nothing more than icy water from a washing up bowl. I can’t imagine doing this with my boss. That said, Sergeants would make amazing rehearsal directors – their attention to detail is second to none.
Reveille. The sun has set. For hours, we drive through the night. In the small hours we rendezvous with another troop. We’re tabbing the rest of the distance to the observation post on foot.
We tab in single file, about 5 metres apart. You watch your backs and each other in silence. It feels a lot like being on stage, surrounded by your colleagues, deep in the middle of a complicated section of choreography. You’re all there right alongside each other with nothing but eye contact and an iron strong belief in each other to keep you together.
The drills, which resemble nothing so much as rehearsals, are on an instinctual level. There’s that strange serenity that you only experience when you are fully absorbed by the task at hand, when there is no space in your mind for anything other than the present moment.
In this way soldiering and performing are alike. The body is the bridge between soldiers and dancers. We enjoy a challenge, whether that be the mental and physical challenge of tricky choreography or the demands of a mission. There is a flush of pride and excitement when we exceed our expectations and push beyond our limits.
There is no escaping that 5 Soldiers is a physically demanding piece. Every performance is a challenge and that is part of why I love doing it. It feels like a celebration of the strength my body has. That said, if that tab to the OP had been 4 days into a real battle, the chances are we would have had little to no sleep. Keeping an eye on your mate in front means making sure he doesn’t wander off in the wrong direction following an hallucination – not my idea of fun.
We settle into our OP. The terrain is sodden and uneven. We can see activity from the enemy base. Our OP consists of the tarp we slept under, stretched over a small depression in the ground. The aperture is little more than a foot high.
Unlike dancers, normal things like time of the day and severe weather don’t seem to bother soldiers – they carry on regardless until the job is done.
Similarly to dancers, soldiers lead by example. In this case, that meant when I woke up the officer for his watch at 0800 hours, I found him sleeping in the secondary OP which had become one big puddle. Even now that officer comes into my head when I need to dig deep.
We were extracted and taken back to HQ. It felt like walking off stage in the middle of the final act. Whilst the conditions of the OP had been grim, I already felt guilty leaving my small troop. It is easy to see how the bonds between soldiers hold them together through war and combat.
During my time with Scots DG, I realised that the army is not one faceless entity that has nothing to do with us, but a collection of small tribes, and each has its own set of rules and traditions. That each tribe is made by the individuals in it. That each individual has hopes and dreams and pet hates like everybody else.
Spending time with soldiers on battle exercise, it became clear to me that whilst we have many things in common, I am not a soldier. It also drove home the truth to the following statement:
“Take away the politics, weapons and technology; we’re still talking about flesh and blood and I think that gets forgotten. I want to bring that right into people’s vicinity.” – Rosie Kay
By Luke Bradshaw, dancer in 5 Soldiers: The Body Is The Frontline.
As a freelance writer, Luke has written for Dance Europe and Tanz Magazine.